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Medieval Carcassonne

Hopping off the train at Gare de Carcassonne, I somehow expect to see the mysterious fortified La Cité immediately. Not so.

Carcassonne is divided in two: la Cité occupying a plateau on the right bank of the river Aude, and the Bastide Saint-Louis or lower town, on the left bank. Several bridges connect the two; the best known is the 14th century Pont Vieux.

The lower town is nice enough, with pleasant, smiling people. It's much the same as any other charming French town; shops, restaurants, even Mackers - always a bit of a downer in historic surroundings.

Although the tourist office is eager to point out the virtues of the lower town, I’m here for one reason, well… actually, two: La Cité de Carcassonne — mother of all medieval cities, and Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, protector of the persecuted, tolerant, kind and brave. Centuries ahead of his time, he was an all-round medieval hero. Sadly, these very qualities became his downfall.

I hasten through the lower town and after about 15 minutes, just around a corner, that grand fortress materializes before my eyes. Breathtaking! La Cité is said to have inspired Walt Disney to create the setting for Sleeping Beauty. Just remember that Carcassonne came before Disney.

Since this site was first occupied 2,600 years ago, many have left their mark: Gauls and Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and Saracens, Franks and various kings of France.

Designed to survive long sieges and lure the enemy, la Cité was virtually impregnable. One of the rooms in the Narbonnaise Tower could store and preserve 1,000 salted pigs and 100 heads of cattle. Fake stairs, false doors, barricades, and many winding twists and turns abounded. Also, the two massive stone walls - constituting about three kilometers of battlements and including more than 50 towers and barbicans - afforded serious protection.

In 760, Pippin the Younger, king of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, had recaptured most of Southern France from the Saracens. But the impregnable fortress of Carcassonne resisted. According to legend, a Saracen princess named Carcas devised a ruse to save the city. After a long siege, she used the last sacks of grain to fatten up a pig, and then threw it over the ramparts. Seeing such a well-fed pig, the assailants gave up, thinking the city had enough food not to surrender for a long time. Carcas rang the bells to celebrate, and the city was named Carcas sonne (Carcas rings).

Different versions of this story are told, some featuring Pippin, some Charlemagne. A good story, but probably a myth. More likely, the name comes from the Celtic Carsac, name of the important Roman trading post that was there some 2,000 years ago.

Crossing the Pont Vieux, I approach La Cité on a drawbridge over a moat. To my immediate left are the jousting grounds, the wide space between the two walls. Circling La Cité between these two ramparts, I’m struck by the immensity of it. The different periods of construction are clearly visible, including much of the original Roman wall.

La Cité is not an isolated fort. There are plenty of those around. Several Cathar castles dot the raw landscape of Languedoc. No, what makes Carcassonne so special is that it’s an entire city, fortified, still standing and still home to living, breathing human beings - about 120 of them.

Narrow cobbled streets, alleyways and half-timbered houses greet me as I enter through the imposing Porte Narbonnaise. Cafés and restaurants flourish, as do shops selling crafts, antiques, lavender, linen, leather and crockery, Mediterranean olive oil, medieval chocolates, truffles and pâté, T-shirts, postcards and plastic swords.

Other tourists do not overwhelm me. Odd, because Carcassonne is one of France’s premier destinations and this is August - the very last day of August, but still. They are here, of course, but I don’t mind. Somehow the fairy-tale atmosphere, the old brick walls, the stories contained within them, it all just pulls me in. So much that I hardly notice others, bumping into an angry Italian or two along the way, who utter words I have yet to learn.

Carcassonne deserves way more than the one day I can afford. You should spend the night - at least one living within the walls of la Cité, getting a feel for the place when everything is quiet. Explore the maze of squares and alleys at midnight, the silhouette of turrets against a night sky. And under a full moon it would be spine tingling. Or walk the silent streets in the early morning mist.

Inside the walls, the luxuriously attractive Hotel de la Cite beckons, but my wallet screams No. Then Look in there instead. I’m drawn into the Rue du Vicomte Trencavel where there is a hostel. In addition to the one inside la Cité, there are also three hostels near Carcassonne. Good to know for next time. And it won’t be long.

I queue for tickets to the Chateau Comtal, home of Raymond-Roger Trencavel. Entering the courtyard, my eyes are drawn to the walkway along the ramparts. I run up the stairs, eager to check out the view and promptly drop my camera. Very first day in use, one little stumble, and my brand new little Ixus hits the stone floor. True, it’s the floor of a 13th century chateau. That’s at least something.

The view from the gangway is magnificent, and I can see the entire lower town across the river. Trencavel must have looked out here as well. He wouldn’t have seen the lower town, but he would have seen the river, wide fields and the Pyrenees in the distance on a clear day like today.

My thoughts are broken. I’m a bit distracted by my damaged camera. Annoyed at my carelessness, I sit down at a café in the shady Place Markou to examine it more closely. Amazingly, it seems to be working, even if the screen is badly cracked. Back to using a viewfinder again and a strap around my neck like some nine-year-old with a latchkey.

Soon I’m enjoying a bagna, tuna sandwich, and a distinctly non-medieval coke-flavoured slurpee. Gazing at the splendid surroundings, I try to absorb all this wonderful energy coming at me from every wall, every corner, and every little street.

Again my thoughts are drawn to Trencavel. He walked these streets, looked at that wall. He probably passed it every day on his way to work - whatever the work of a 13th century viscount may have been. Perhaps it meant inspecting troops, seeing to his subjects, supervising projects - even a bit of hard labour, for the sheer joy of it.

Did he lean on this gate at the entrance to the Chateau Comtal, like I did minutes ago? Did he have clandestine meetings with young nubile maidens in quiet corners? Later with his young wife, maybe in this deserted little cul-de-sac named after her, the Impasse Agnes de Montpellier? I choose not to be distracted by the decidedly unromantic sign telling you to please refrain from peeing on the window in three languages: "Don’t have a pee here. Please. Thanks."

A few years later, did he walk with Agnes and his little son, Raymond, through the streets of la Cité? It’s surprisingly easy to picture the little family strolling the narrow streets, greeting people, chatting, laughing.

I decide to try a little mental experiment to visualize this place without modern amenities. I’ll just clothe everyone here in imaginary medieval costume, throw out the mobiles and have everyone speak in Oc, the language that has given its name to the region, the Languedoc.

31 August 1206 - this must have been a scene of intense activity, much like today. The afternoon sun would be warming the courtyard of the Chateau Comtal.

Take away the miniskirts, the tattoos and those 14-year-olds would probably giggle and engage in teenage speaks of that day. That middle-aged wife would probably bitch at her husband, just as she is doing now. Those two young men would likely ogle the girls and have a beer, but not Heineken from a can. And they wouldn’t be wearing shorts and Rip Curl T-shirts, but a tunic. And they would speak Oc, not Dutch. That man over there, dishing out ice cream, maybe he would be a blacksmith, beating iron for a horseshoe.

I amuse myself with these thoughts of Carcassonne 800 years ago, and wish Trencavel would magically appear and share his thoughts with me.

Raymond-Roger Trencavel, viscount of Carcassonne, Beziers, Albi and Razes since the age of nine, was a fascinating character. Brave and independent, he stood alone against the Catholic forces from the north in 1209. This is the man who faced the full force of the first crusade.

The Cathars had broken away from the Catholic Church, a sin punishable by death during the Crusades and the subsequent inquisition. For the Good Christians, as they called themselves, theirs was the only true Christianity. They considered the Catholic Church to be corrupt.

A main principle of Catharism was the duality of good and evil. The universe was created by both good and evil powers, they held. God was responsible for the spiritual world, Satan for Earth and all material things. Jesus was not a God, but rather an angel here to deliver a message. Also, humans had several opportunities to evolve and strive for perfection through a succession of lifetimes.

In many ways, Catharism was ahead of its time. The Catharists opposed violence, considered men and women equal partners in a marriage and were strict vegetarians. Many are drawn to similar ideas today - luckily, without risking persecution.

Trencavel was a Catholic himself, but a tolerant man, offering shelter and protection to Cathars and Jews. His seat of Beziers was even run by Jews. In the end, he was the only one willing to protect people from being slaughtered by the crusaders.

In Montpellier, Trencavel was asked to chase out the heretics and deliver them to the crusaders. Standing before the assembly of crusaders, presided over by the papal legate, Trencavel declared: "I offer a town, a roof, a shelter, bread and my sword to all persecuted people who will soon be wandering in Provence, without a town, or roof, or place of refuge, or bread". Spoken like a true hero!

A word here about the Albigensian Crusade, yet another military campaign waged in the name of Christianity. Pope Innocent III, to free the country from "the Cathar heresy" and to maintain the unity of the Roman Catholic Church, launched this crusade. Conquered lands were offered up to French royalty and nobility, thus creating an efficient army of mercenaries.

The crusade soon degenerated to an orgy of heretic-burning, extreme violence even by medieval standards. Beginning in 1209, the first main event was the sacking of Beziers. Thousands of people - men, women and children, and not just heretics - were slaughtered or burned inside churches where they had sought refuge.

Next was Carcassonne, well fortified, but vulnerable, lacking water and over-filled with refugees under Trencavel’s protection. When Carcassonne was under siege, Trencavel was offered a truce. He left the stronghold to meet his adversaries. This was a ruse. In the middle of negotiations, he was taken prisoner and thrown in a dungeon where he later died under mysterious circumstances. Officially, he died from dysentery. Some say he was poisoned. He was 24.

One city after the other fell and the Albigensian Crusade is, by its sheer brutality, one of the bleakest chapters in the history of the Catholic Church. The Medieval Inquisition then took off in full force, the precursor of the more famous Spanish Inquisition.

An Inquisitor appointed by the Pope led each district. His job was to examine suspicious persons or entire districts (such as Languedoc) infested with heresy. The process began with a campaign. Heretics were requested to repent and report to the inquisitor within a mercy period of one month. Failure to comply resulted in arrest, interrogation, often torture, and then punishment - the harshest of which was death by burning.

In the Cathar region, the stronghold of Montsegur was one of the last to fall. After almost a year’s siege, Montsegur was taken in 1244. The most resilient of the Good Christians, more than 200 people, were given a choice between renouncing their faith or burning at the stake. Legend has it they sang while burning.

To the modern mind, it seems incredible that so many would choose suffering a painful death over lying. But being convinced they were leaving this evil place to go home, perhaps the time before passing out from pain or smoke would seem like seconds compared to eternity in paradise.

In the 18th century, Carcassonne was abandoned. In 1850 a decree was issued to demolish the city. Luckily, historian, Cros-Meyrevieille, saved the city from destruction.

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, founder of the modern science of conservation, restored the ancient fortress to its original appearance. He obviously took some liberties. After all, slate would hardly have been available in the 1100s. But my little pamphlet, published by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, assures me that present-day Cité as a 19th century reconstruction is entirely false, and that these are indeed Roman and medieval fortifications that I see.

UNESCO put the walled city of Carcassonne on its World Heritage List in 1997.

Carcassonne has more to recommend it than la Cité. Among these is the Canal du Midi also on UNESCO'S World Heritage list. Constructed in the 17th century, this canal runs for 240 kilometers and connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. You can explore the whole region on board a barge, ride a bike or amble along the old towpath.

The Languedoc is also fine winegrowing country and home to the first bubbly, the Blanquette de Limoux, forerunner of its more famous cousin from the region of Champagne. It’s light and aromatic and oddly, must be bottled during the descending moon in March. There is mystery all around here.